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Ocean prize for 'assisted' coral evolution

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10 April 2014
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) is delighted to announce that ARC1 Future Fellow at AIMS, Dr Madeleine van Oppen and Research Professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Ruth Gates have won the Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge award for 2013, for their proposed work on selecting genetic traits in corals that will enable them to cope better with the stresses imposed by acidifying and warming oceans.
"We are immensely grateful to the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation for this award. It helps to raise the profile of this much needed research into how to help corals survive human-induced climate change impacts, a growing challenge as our marine environments absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," said Dr van Oppen.
Their winning research concept Building a biological toolkit to mitigate ocean acidification impacts and restore corals reefs, aims to develop stocks of reef building corals that can survive better in acidified waters and warmer conditions.
For thousands of years humans have been genetically improving wild animals and plants through selective breeding for traits such as production yield, nutritional value, pest resistance, etc. The development of genetically enhanced stocks in non-commercial applications, for instance in boosting resilience of natural populations, has only recently begun to gain attention.
"We propose to develop coral stocks for coral reef restoration by enhancing certain characteristics through the acceleration of naturally occurring evolutionary processes, such as the mixing of gene pools and laboratory selection for enhanced stress tolerance, an approach known as human-assisted evolution," explained van Oppen.
"Coral reefs are reservoirs of biodiversity and play central roles in coastal security, tourism and fisheries. Reef health is declining at an alarming rate across the globe as a result of human induced climate change. This prize helps us to continue to take a proactive stance and develop capacity to mitigate impacts on reefs," concluded Dr Gates.
The US Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, in collaboration with the Oceanography Society, issued a challenge to the international oceanographic community, offering a $10,000 prize for the most promising new science-based concept of an environmental and/or societal response directed at reducing the impact of an acidifying ocean. A total of 36 concepts were received from seven countries and were evaluated by an international panel of oceanographic experts familiar with the problem of acidification. These concepts were identified as highly relevant to the ocean acidification problem and offered approaches that would not only increase basic knowledge of the subject but would likely result in scalable procedures to reduce the impact on organisms, marine ecosystems, and/or industries.
Ocean acidification occurs when carbon dioxide mixes with water, lowering the pH of the water (making it a little more acidic). Scientists have shown that even small changes in the level of acidity in the oceans can have detrimental effects on the growth, survival and reproduction of many marine organisms such as coral.
Launched by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen and Jody Allen in 1988, The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation is dedicated to transforming lives and strengthening communities by fostering innovation, creating knowledge and promoting social progress. Since inception, the Foundation has awarded over $469 million to more than 1,400 nonprofit groups to support and advance their critical charitable endeavors in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
1.Australian Research Council.
For more information or for an interview, please contact:
Dr Madeleine van Oppen, e-mail:, mobile: +61 (0) 409267577, or
Steve Clarke, AIMS Communication Manager, e-mail:, mobile: +61 (0) 419668497